The Steadfast Sky : Chapter 36
The Grey Potter
I ran my thumb up and down the taut skin of my ribcage, head finally clear. It was early morning, hours before it would become light, and I was having the most lucid thoughts since leaving Stringhalt.
That feeling is gone. Well, a lot of feelings are gone. The feeling of emptiness, of a void hand scratching in my throat. Replaced by that feeling of a thick, impatient lump in my stomach. Replaced by nothing. The feeling that I got when Luna hugged me is gone, like a hot spot in my guts. Made me feel jittery, kinda feverish, I couldn’t breathe right. That was with me for hours and hours, keeping me awake, keeping me thinking. It was an Element thing, I was sure. Something about the Elements. Something released with my secrets, maybe. A physical feeling of forgiveness, counteracting that tight, curly feeling of secrecy.
Now I just feel… normal, I guess. Alive. No longer afraid of dying, body relieved… There was a moment, I remember clearly, when my body wouldn’t stop shaking with that relief. That feeling left real quick. Gone by the time I was caught in the coop.
Now it’s just normal.
Normal, but not better. Not yet. I run my thumb down my ribcage, back up. Feeling the taut skin, the little hills and ridges that sprouted from weeks of restraint.
That kind’ve stupid of me, wasn’t it?
Was it selfish of me to think of this as my problem, to bear my own pain with pride? Should I have just told my friends what was going on, right from the start? Celestia blew up at me, of course. But after her scene, she hasn’t said a word. She’s letting it be. And my entire conversation with Luna… Well, I guess I’ve spun that round and round my head enough. Never letting me think I was unfit to bear Kindness. Always asserting that she cared. That she was my friend. Even after all this. She’s my friend. She’ll always be my friend. She’ll always be there…
I stop thumbing my ribs, flop onto my stomach. Shove my snout into the cot, horns resting on my little arms. Feeling a strange little thrill as my thoughts spin.
Understanding. Comfort. And Kindness. Especially Kindness… Ponies. They always have me beat.
But there’s hope.
I can learn.
There was… something I was unable to do for a long, long time. Something I always held myself back from, just on instinct. What if I spent myself, left myself weak? Left myself unable to defend my friends when I needed to? What would happen if I went too far when I cast my spells? Can a pony die from casting too many spells when hungry?
It was appealing to test my limits, to experiment. I wanted to experiment. But I always held myself back.
Now, with the fear of spending myself lifted, consequences for casting gone…
I dropped the illusion of a spider onto Celestia’s ear.
She kept walking, chin held high and legs tight, same as she had been walking the past hour. Completely and totally oblivious to everything around her. Including the spider.
I made extra sure the little guy was solid. I made him move a leg. Flakes, sparks popped from its joints, sprinkling onto her skin. She flicked her ear, a mindless reaction, not really the one I was hoping for. With a twitch of my finger I sent the spider crawling down towards her mane, popping and flashing as it moved. I make a mental note: figure out how to make movement natural. Later. It got all the way to the back of Celestia’s head before the flashes had caught Luna’s eye. She stared at the little popping dot. Looked at me, back at the spider, then giggled into her hoof.
“Yes?” Celestia flicked around to look at us. “What is it?”
I grinned. “Nothin’.”
Luna pretended she was coughing, burying her snout into her hood.
Celestia turned back, and the spider progressed maybe an inch more before she slapped her ear. A black, dusty smear dragged across her scalp behind her hoof, practically disintegrating by the time she got a look on it. Celestia watched the remnants of the plaster spider as it crumbled, vanishing into nothing.
She gave her empty hoof a haughty snort.
“Really, Discord? Don’t you have anything important to say?”
“Hm? Not really...” I grinned up at the sky. The gray cover was darker than normal, nearly black. We had been walking in an early-morning shroud for nearly two hours, and only now did the slightest thing change. Little floating specs of white, barely visible. “I think it’s starting to snow?”
“For goodness’ sake!” She shouted, snapping her neck upwards. “I knew it looked like rain when we left!”
“Wait, snow?” Luna followed me and Celestia, turning to stare at the dark gray ceiling herself. “How does snow just happen like this?”
I shrugged. “Pegasi let a rainstorm get away and it went cold?”
“Huh,” Luna said, “So that’s how it works…?”
“Negligence!” Celestia barked, “The farmer’s crops will go cold! Our subjects might go hungry because of this, this oversight!”
“What?” I said, “Our… subjects, Celestia?”
“Yes! Our…” She looked back at my raised eyebrows. “Well, this is an, an unmitigated disaster. Nonetheless.”
“I see.” I turned to her sister, “Luna! Your sister’s talking funny.Talk some sense into that poor mare!”
She giggled. “Yeah, she is sounding funny. Should I tell her a good joke?”
“I’m right here, you know!” Celestia shouted, “And I can hear you mumbling about me!”
“Then tell me!” I shot back, “Why are you talking like that?” She flicked her mane, remaining quiet. “And why are you stretching out your legs like that? You look like you have to whizz really badly.”
“C-crass talk! In front of a lady!” Her face twisted, like she was trying very hard to not swallow a lemon. “Clean your mouth!”
“W-what? What does that even…? Oh jeez!” I laughed, she grew tighter, and I laughed again, jabbing my snout into my elbow. “T-the look on your face…!”
Celestia snorted, a puff of steam causing little snowflakes to go swirling. She marched off, snapping her knees so high I wouldn’t be surprised if one hit her in the jaw. Luna wasn’t far behind her, ears flat, sparkling with some level of concern, yet still trying to suppress a fit of giggles.
“What’s the matter, big sister?”
“Nothing. I feel fine.”
“No you don’t.”
“I am fine. Better than before, even! I am reminded that I should be acting like a proper lady, like I…” She glared down at her sister. “And you for that matter should be behaving ladylike as well! Straighten that spine, hold your head straight! Remember your lessons, for goodness sake! Horsefeathers, a few weeks on the road, and we’ve become… we’ve become… aniiimmm…” She sputtered, whipping her mane around again. “Wild horses! Woodponies, yes!”
“Celestia…” Luna pouted.
An octave lower, “Celestia…”
Snickering quietly, I snuck forward, on Celestia’s other side.
“Stop it,” she snorted.
“What?! What, what do you want from me?!” She staggered forward. “Leave me alone!”
“Jeez,” I said, “And I thought you were high-strung before…”
“Big sis, please! What’s wrong?”
Celestia mumbled to herself, straightening her cloak, squaring her shoulders, generally acting nervous as she continued walking.
“It’s um…” she sighed. “Give me a moment… I…”
“Stop! Quiet! You two…” Her shoulders drooped. “How can you both just be so cheerful? With everything that just happened?”
My smirk remained right where it was, maybe even grew a little bit.
“I’m not dead,” I said, “Is that a good thing?”
“I, well, I didn’t mean to imply…” Celestia stammered. “It’s very, very good to have you, well, alive, Discord. It’s important. But… The fate of Equestria, you two. It’s in our hooves. And not just now, with this!” she waved at the sky, “This isn’t just about the Shadow Stallion! For the rest of our immortal lives, Equestria will depend on us. Just… just stop and think.” She stopped, giving us said time to think, I guess. “Isn’t that just so… so overwhelming?”
And then things got quiet. Really quiet, with the snow muffling all the noise except crunch of our hooves. I mean, I had nothing to say to that. Not many thoughts to spare either. I remember hearing what Curling Quill was saying about the Elements, remembering thinking it was crazy… But it’s not like I was mentally all together that night. I had been so concerned with making sure my life continued, I hadn’t really thought much about what happens when that’s no longer an issue.
But’s so strange to think about. I boggled for a moment, trying to summon a picture of myself… but older. Would I be… stronger? Bigger and tougher? I’d tower over most ponies fully grown. What’s life like when you’re not staring at knees all the time?
“I barely think of what life’s going to be like as an adult,” I admitted, “Let alone an adult with crazy amounts of responsibility.”
“So you never thought about it,” Celestia said flatly.
“You know, big sis,” Luna piped up, “I don’t really feel any different.”
“Because,” Luna interrupted, firm and direct, “I never really thought about what will happen. I guess before all this, I’d just be a Baroness. It’s like a Princess, except a little less Princess-y? I dunno.” She shrugged. “I was getting taught to be a Baroness. Now I’ll be taught how to be a Princess. Both are pretty cool, but I’m not scared of it. We have teachers waiting to tell us everything we need.”
And then, Luna looked right up at her sister and pouted.
“’I see’?” she snapped, “That’s all you’re going to say?”
“Doesn’t that make sense? Doesn’t that help stuff? Help you?”
“Yeah! Jeez, Celestia!” I exclaimed, “I thought you would be all over this Princess stuff. What with your, ‘shine on all the people’ cutie mark.”
“I’m sorry to give off that impression…” Celestia replied, still staring down at her sister, “You are right, both of you. I don’t doubt Canterlot’s abilities to teach us. And I am excited. Princess Celestia…”
“You like goals, don’t you?” I said, “And this one’s long term, set in stone...”
“Yes… But…” Celestia fiddled with a pebble, kicking it up over the slowly collecting piles of snow. “Is it the right goal?”
“YES!” I shouted.
“Of course it is!” Luna cried over me.
“This is how we’re going to save Equestria!”
“What he said!”
“Why are you dragging your feet like this?!”
“Okay!” Finally, her voice dropped down to its normal level. Her walk normalized into a natural gait, tight posture gone. “I get it, stop yelling at me!” Once again we fell to silence. A more awkward silence.
“I’m sorry for shouting…” Luna said softly.
“I never did find out what a Nightmare was!” Celestia squeaked, ignoring her sister. “All those books in the library, all the Illuminators… Not one could, or would answer me! I just know that something did happen to those alicorns, to each and every one of them. It was Loyalty first, you know. He ‘succumbed’ first.” She stared down at her element, almost repulsed by it. “Then it was Honesty. Then Laughter, then Generosity… Magic left, and Kindness was last, his Nightmares realized on the land itself…” She shuttered, shaking her head at the ground. “It scares me! Why won’t anybody tell me how it happens? Shouldn’t this be something we should be concerned about? Is it inevitable? Are they afraid, that if they tell us, we’ll throw away the Elements?”
“Maybe we’ll learn at Canterlot,” Luna said.
“Yeah,” Celestia snorted, “After we’ve gained our ‘infinite wisdom.’”
“Oh, Wow!” And despite myself, I laughed. “I thought you more than anyone else would buy into that!”
“Just because I want to be a Princess doesn’t mean I wasn’t weirded out by how they acted.”
“Heck yes, me too.”
“Me three!” Luna squeaked.
“Did I tell you, about the little ceremony they put me and Luna through?”
She grinned. “I heard about it. But…”And she frowned again. “Discord?”
“I’m still mad at you for lying to us,” she snapped, head held high again, “But I’m sorry you had to go through all that.” She took a breath. “And don’t let anypony tell you otherwise, you deserve to bear Kindness, or be Kindness. Okay?”
“… I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“Oh… hush, you.”
“No, I’m serious!” I leaned in close to Celestia, leering up at her. “Is this some sort of bribe? Should I be expecting a qualifying ‘but’ to come up now?”
“I said hush!” She smirked. “No qualifiers. Today.”
I sniffled loudly in her ear, swiping an arm over my all-too-dry eyes.
“I-I think I’m going to cry!” I snorted. Celestia grinned, and flicked a puff of snow into my snout.
“You’re just making fun of me.”
“Well, if you said nice things more often…”
“No!” I cried, “The qualifiers, why!”
“It’s a change of topic, not a qualifier! Calm down! But…” Celestia paused, staring down at me. Her posture corrected itself, became slightly stiffer. “There is something I want all of us to try. Before we head to Canterlot, I want to test something.”
It wasn’t long before we stopped. The snow was falling a little bit heavier by then, in big feathery blobs. I tried to dry off a spot to sit down, shaking off and patting down long shoots grass. Kicking aside the ankle-deep coat of snow. But everything was frosted over, leaves damp and icy under the wet blanket. Every time I tried to touch it, my hand and fur would come away with a little clinging coat of ice.
“I don’t know what’s worse,” I admitted, trying to pry off the little bits running nearly up above my knees. “This or rain.”
“I like this!” Luna squeaked, deliberately kicking up white waves with every step. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to play in snow before! Last time it happened, it was night. And it all melted by morning.”
“Hm… I think I remember that. Last year, right?” Luna looked up at me and nodded. “That night was horrible in the castle. It’s cold enough in that underground icebox, more freezing was not what it needed.” I chuckled and looked up at the sky, tearing at a little chunk clinging to the hair of my furry elbow. “You’d think the Pegasi would have caught up to this thing by now.”
“Negligence!” Celestia called from across the glade, “I’m telling you!”
“Don’t start rambling in fancy again, Celestia!”
Celestia grumbled something, I couldn’t hear it. Seemed like her good mood was all but dried up. She wasn’t prancing around like she had something to prove anymore, but when we asked what she wanted to do, all she gave back was a ‘find an open space…’ And then her expression wouldn’t stop falling. Now, she looked up at the trees, pacing back and forth on the edge of the clearing, frown staying right where it was.
“So can I ask you what you’re looking for now?”
“In a moment!”
“I’m going to have lunch, okay?”
She stopped for a second, one foot hovering in the air.
“Yes. Yes, go ahead.”
Still not comfortable with it, I see… I shrug off the little cloth sack, letting it drop off my back, over my bat wing. It’s not that heavy, but I stretched out my wings anyway. Not used to carrying something around, no matter the weight… And heck if I was going to force either of the girls to carry this with them. Their packs already got loaded down by the Illuminators, and, I guess, even with the truth out, I still see it as my issue.
I carefully peeled open the pack, and, as expected, it was full of little veiny slabs wrapped in stained paper. I picked up the top one, the one that already had a little bite in it. The oversalted taste wasn’t anything to die for, and the texture was a confusing mix of chewy and powdery, but it’s better this than nothing, right? I ripped off a chunk and forced myself through it, watching Luna plow her way around the field, using magic to create two thick waves of snow and dead leaves.
After a short while, Celestia’s horn lit up, and a crooked little branch along with it. It shook as she backed away, thick wet clumps of white slipping easily off the green foliage. With a shake of her head, a snap, and squeak as she stumbled back, the branch tumbled to the ground. She flipped it around, stripped it of a few small twigs, then jammed it into one of the muddy trails Luna had left behind her.
“Okay,” Celestia huffed, composing herself, “You see this stick?”
“We are going to try and Harmony Blast it.”
“So that’s a thing we can do now?”
“Of course it is!” Luna cheered, trotting up to her sister. “This sounds like fun!”
“I, well, I did say try, Discord.” Celestia nodded me over, and I quickly packed away the remaining fish. I guess I was taking too long trying to get the package back around my shoulders (fiddly little knots…) because, while she was waiting, she pulled out an apple to mindlessly munch on. “That was another thing I couldn’t find out from the library,” she said, being careful to not talk through a mouthful of fruit. “All the Elements work in tandem, and it’s well-recorded what they can do together. With unified souls, the six who bear the elements can accomplish miraculous things no single pony can do on their own.” She stopped, frowning. “A lot of the stories were pretty hard to swallow, actually. Summoning huge rainstorms in deserts, tearing holes through mountains... There was even one story where they brought a dead pony back to life. And it was written that, you know…” She waved her hoof. “The Bearers transform into alicorns because of the Elements, their own personal magic becomes amplified, so on so forth... ”
She took a few more bits of the apple, staring at her little stick dummy.
“But!” Celestia snapped her hooves together, posture re-tightening, descending further into what I’m going to label the ‘explainy voice.’ “All the First Gods got their Elements at the same time, and the only time they were used was when they were all together. And, while it’s shown that other alicorns could use each other’s Elements… That’s how they… you know. Put each other to rest.” She shoved the apple into her mouth, trying to bite off an oversized chunk. “But the books didn’t say anything about using a few Elements at a time, what that would do.”
“So what are we waiting for?!” Luna popped in front of her sister. “Let’s try things! Whatever we can think of! Like what would happen if we all used our sky… beamy…” She stared into space. “Flashlights! All at once!”
“We do need to come up with better names for these things,” Celestia said through a bite of apple. “Don’t want to wind up with another name like ‘Adventure Trio…’”
“C’mon,” Luna laughed, “Adventure Trio wasn’t that bad!”
“Yes, but, Flashlights?” Celestia said, “That barely even fits, there’s not one flash involved.”
“The lights appear in a flash!” Luna retorted, “Remember how quick it smacked Discord in the face that first time?”
“I do!” I interjected, “You wanted to destroy the Element after it blinded me!
“Oh. Right.” She threw away the apple core. “Well, that’s hardly relevant now.”
“I guess not…” I continue to grin. “Anyway, those books couldn’t tell you their names?”
“I’ve told you already, they were pretty much all history. I had to glean what I know from stuff like ‘Generosity funds Redheart Healers, praise his wise soul, may he become smarter evermore, hail to the alicorns’.” She sighed. “I guess we can call the skybeamy thing ‘Flashlight’ for now. Until we think of something better.” Celestia stepped forward, nodding me to my feet, Element glowing gently as her horn lit up. “So let’s try this.”
So we tried. I tapped my Element, focus coming to me easily. Focus coming to all of us easily. I stared at the branch, broad leaves already coated in a new speckled film of snow. Briefly, our Elements glittered…
And three solid beams shot forward, blue, yellow, and white. To my surprise, maybe everybody’s surprise, the beams joined together, snapped into place in a single flat beam. A faded rainbow the colors of our auras arced from the connection, singing in a resonating bell tone, spilling over the stick figure, encasing it in a splashing pool of light.
Celestia’s aura vanished, and the rainbow popped apart. She stared at the spot where the rainbow struck. The snow pushed away, revealing a wide circle of mud and wet leaves.
“Goodness! Oh my goodness…” She squeaked. “That, that certainly was a result.”
“Who knew a Harmony Blast could be so easily done?!” Luna cheered, hopping in place. “Let’s do it again!”
“I, I’m not sure what that did,” Celestia stammered, “I don’t even think it damaged the branch…”
“It looks a little greener,” I offered, staring along with my friend.
“No. No, we just knocked more snow off it, that’s all,” she replied.
“Or melted it.” I took a step forward, without even realizing it. I had to see… I wound up next to the spot, the cleared brown muck around the twig dummy. I placed a hand down on it.
“It’s wet,” I stated, “And warm.” I lifted my hand, bringing with me a small chunk of leaves. Underneath the area, little green sprouts were worming their way around the mud, two or three beetles scrambling for deeper cover. Were these always hiding under the leaves, away from the snow?
“Well um. Good work!” Celestia called. “So… what else could we try?”
“Remember?” Luna piped up, “When we were in that broom closet? We resonated a little bit! What happens when we do that?”
“Should we form a circle, maybe?” I offered. “Around our test stick?”
Luna was by my side in a flash of her Element, already glowing in her eagerness. Celestia was a little slower, preoccupied with her element, gently picking it up in her aura to get a closer look.
“Problem?” I asked.
“Just… feels strange to finally have one of these. Strange how natural it feels to wear and use.” She laughed lightly. “You know, I was never one to wear necklaces or shawls…”
“And you think I was?”
Celestia stared at me.
Celestia found her place across from me, and I closed my eyes, focused slowly on my Element. You would think, since it took less magic, this ‘Resonation’ would be easier. Just enough to make the little gemstone ring out. But after the ease of the rainbow, the Resonation took more than a minute of slow adjustment and build into that single, bell-like tone. And, after a minute of standing in the bright glow, it vanished the moment one of us broke concentration. And by one of us, I mean me.
“Aw.” Luna said, blinking away the bright from her eyes as her own Element faded, “I thought we would do something way more spectacular than that.”
“The snow hasn’t even moved,” I noted, fiddling with the leaves. Still warm, still wet, still with little sprouts hiding in the fallen foliage.
“Maybe there’s something more to it,” Celestia said, “Something we’re missing. Like a next step.”
“Or the other Elements,” I pointed out.
“I hope not…”
“So big sis! What now?”
“I don’t know…” Celestia walked around the circle, staring at the ground. “There’s so little we actually got out of that. The results are a little… I don’t know what we did, in either case.”
I think most other times I would have just let this be. We knew we’d learn how to use these things later, we knew it might take more than three elements to do anything. It’s interesting what we were able to do, but that’s all it was. Interesting. Best to just put this aside for now, just learn what’s what at Canterlot.
But that little look on Celestia’s face…
“Alright, Celestia. What’s up?” I laughed, an idea suddenly popping to mind. “Were you hoping we’d play unicorn scientists again?”
“Holy crap!” Luna shouted, “Why didn’t I think of that?! I haven’t been announcing the test numbers or anything!”
Celestia bit the corner of her mouth, fiddled with it. Sighed out her nose, snowflakes swirling in the steam.
“No, that’s not it,” she said.
“Aw…” Luna huffed. “Can we still play Unicorn scientists anyway? After you tell us what’s still bugging you?”
I rolled my eyes, “We keep finding problems, but then you keep digging up more. And you complained to me about lying!”
“I didn’t lie!” Celestia snapped, “I wanted to know what the Elements could do!”
“For what reason?”
She took a quick breath.
“I don’t think I want to go to Canterlot anymore.”
She looked up, stared at me.
“You’re not going to… I don’t know, snap at me? Pick on me for it?”
“Just tell us why not.”
“Oh. Well… Discord…” She continued to look at me, once more correcting her posture. “Since you showed us what was really going on in Canterbury, I can’t stop thinking about it. About all those ponies locked up… about what happens to them… About what’s been happening to the Pegasi, and things as small as the neglect we saw in Rearing Town.”
I stayed silent, feeling guilty, and a little bit attacked. I almost expected this to be her proclamation of denouncement, telling me I need help, that I should fess up to everything I know or something. We had been getting along so well too…
“We cannot let that keep happening,” she continued, oblivious to my thoughts. “We’re the new gods. We have to protect them. All of them.” She shook her head. “Everybody wants us to sit on our hooves for however long. Wait around for the other three Elements, whoever they are. Spend that time learning in Canterlot. But we can’t do that. Discord, Luna,” she pleaded, “We have the Elements! If we just find a way to use them, then we could free Canterbury now. We could stop all of this pain and suffering now.”
“Please. Hear me out” Celestia took a deep breath, looking between the both of us. She was firm, holding her tight posture, but not in her hoity-toity way. Serious. Very serious. “Let’s go back to Canterbury. Let’s go back, and stop the Shadow Stallion once and for all.”